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Registered nurses contribute significantly to the patient experience, providing care, coordinating with doctors, and educating patients about health conditions.
But what does a career as a registered nurse (RN) look like? RNs often specialize in areas like emergency care, acute care, obstetrics, critical care, or pediatrics. Nurses can advance their careers through education and experience.
Our guide explains how to become an RN. It also covers RN licensing requirements, common job titles and duties, typical employment settings, and necessary skills for a successful career in nursing.
Popular Online RN-to-BSN Programs
What Do Registered Nurses Do?
RNs coordinate with physicians and healthcare professionals to care for patients. They take patient histories, administer treatments, and operate medical equipment. Depending on their specialty, nurses may work in hospitals, caring for surgical or injured patients, or in doctors' offices, offering primary care services. Nurses may work with patients of all ages, from premature newborns in neonatal intensive care units to elderly patients in hospice care.
RN job duties vary depending on the specialty. Oncology nurses work with cancer patients, while cardiac care unit nurses care for patients receiving treatment for heart conditions. Pediatric nurses treat children in hospitals and doctors' offices, while emergency room nurses treat patients with a variety of urgent conditions and injuries. Within emergency rooms, triage nurses are often the first providers to meet with patients, assessing their needs and recommending medical treatments.
Some nursing specialties do not involve direct contact with patients. For example, RNs who work as nurse educators train other nurses rather than treat patients. RNs can also work as hospital administrators, public health advisors, and healthcare consultants. These roles often require an active RN license.
Nurses draw on critical thinking skills to assess changes in a patient's status and rely on organizational skills to treat multiple patients at a time. RNs also need strong communication skills to provide medical information to patients and communicate with physicians. Additionally, nurses must bring empathy and compassion to their jobs.
Where Do Registered Nurses Work?
Nurses work in a variety of clinical settings, including hospitals, doctor's offices, and long-term care facilities. In 2019, 60% of nurses worked in hospitals. A smaller number of nurses work for government agencies and in educational settings. For example, public health nurses who work for the government may work in schools or community centers.
The setting affects a nurse's job duties and schedule. Nurses in a hospital setting often work in shifts, which typically means irregular hours and schedules that include night and weekend shifts. Some nurses work on call. Those with jobs in doctor's offices or non-clinical settings usually work traditional business hours.
Communication abilities, compassion, and interpersonal skills are all necessary to help nurses interact with patients and work with other healthcare professionals. Nurses also draw on critical thinking skills to assess patients' medical needs and take appropriate actions. Organizational abilities help nurses manage multiple patients and coordinate their treatment. Nursing also requires physical stamina; nurses can spend hours on their feet during a shift.
A nursing program builds the knowledge and skills required for RN careers. This is especially true during clinical hours, when nursing students strengthen their patient care skills and learn how to manage their patient load.
Jobs for Registered Nurses
Registered nurses benefit from an above-average salary and strong projected job growth. RNs also work in a variety of settings, including outpatient care, doctor's offices, and hospitals. This section covers jobs for registered nurses, including salary and career data, plus specialty job titles for experienced nurses.
Salary and Job Growth for Registered Nurses
|Workplace Setting||Mean Salary (2019)|
|Outpatient Care Centers||$84,720|
|Specialty Hospitals, not including Psychiatric or Substance Abuse||$80,840|
|General Medical and Surgical Hospitals||$79,460|
|Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals||$74,610|
|Home Health Care Services||$73,660|
Specialty Job Titles for Registered Nurses
- CCU nurse / critical care nurse
- Charge nurse
- CNS / clinical nurse specialist
- Community health nurse
- Coronary care unit nurse
- Emergency room registered nurse
- Endoscopy registered nurse
- Hospice registered nurse
- Obstetrical nurse
- Oncology registered nurse
- PACU nurse / post-anesthesia care unit nurse
- Pediatric registered nurse
- Psychiatric nurse
- RN / registered nurse
- Triage registered nurse
How to Become an RN
Before pursuing jobs for registered nurses, prospective nurses must complete educational and licensing requirements. Candidates can qualify for an RN license with a nursing diploma, an associate degree in nursing, or a bachelor's degree in nursing. Graduates must pass the NCLEX-RN exam and apply for a state license to practice, though exact requirements vary by state. Nurses can also pursue specialty certifications to advance their career.
This section walks you through the process of becoming an RN, including taking the NCLEX-RN exam and earning licensure.
Aspiring nurses must first complete a nursing diploma or degree. A nursing diploma or an associate degree in nursing fulfills the minimum requirement for an RN license, though many nurses pursue a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). A BSN qualifies nurses for specialized roles and leadership positions. It also meets the requirements to apply to graduate programs in nursing.
During a nursing diploma or associate degree in nursing (ADN) program, students build the clinical skills and nursing knowledge required for entry-level RN jobs. These programs train students to conduct health assessments, understand human anatomy, and evaluate pharmacological therapies. Many programs also incorporate coursework in pediatric nursing, community health nursing, and population health.
Accredited nursing programs require clinical hours to build patient care skills. Early in a nursing program, clinical hours may include simulations or skills labs. In the second year and beyond, nurses complete clinical rotations to strengthen their training in specialty areas, like acute care, pediatrics, or oncology. Completing an ADN typically takes two years.
A BSN program covers similar skills, but in more depth. They also include courses on nursing leadership, clinical nursing skills, and evidence-based practice. Working RNs can enroll in an RN-to-BSN program to complete a bachelor's degree more quickly. After earning a BSN, nurses qualify for graduate programs, where they can train to become an advanced practice RN, like a nurse practitioner, nurse educator, or nurse administrator.
Licensure and Certification
After completing educational requirements, nurses must apply for licensure and certification, which starts with passing the NCLEX-RN exam. Many programs incorporate the exam into their final term of nursing coursework, and it is required for licensure.
The NCLEX-RN is a computer-adaptive test that assesses candidates on several content areas, including safe and effective care environments, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity. Candidates answer questions about safety and infection control, basic care and comfort, pharmacological therapies, and risk reduction. With a passing score on the NCLEX-RN exam, nurses can apply for an RN license.
The state licensure process varies depending on the state. Candidates for a license typically need to submit official transcripts, especially if they attended an out-of-state program. All states require the NCLEX-RN exam, and many conduct a criminal background check. Licensed registered nurses must regularly renew their licenses by meeting continuing education requirements.
RNs can also pursue professional certification to move into specialized careers. The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers board certification for ambulatory care nurses, gerontological nurses, and informatics nurses. Other organizations, like the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, also offer specialty certifications. Nurses typically need to pass an examination to earn certification, and then they must maintain that credential through continuing education requirements.
What to Look for in a Program
Prospective RNs should carefully research nursing programs before submitting an application. The best nursing programs hold programmatic accreditation and include the NCLEX-RN exam as part of their curricula, meeting requirements for an RN license.
Aspiring nursing students should also look into program structure and curriculum, including looking for online programs. In online programs, nurses can often complete clinical requirements through hospitals and clinics that are local to them.
Nurse practitioners provide primary and specialty care for patients. As advanced practice RNs, they conduct health assessments, diagnose medical conditions, and create treatment plans. Nurse practitioners must hold an RN license and complete a graduate program for nurse practitioners before they can apply for NP licensure.
Pharmacy technicians assist pharmacists by taking information from customers, measuring out prescriptions, and packaging prescription medications. They also manage inventory and assist customers. Many pharmacy technicians complete a certificate program or associate degree, and becoming a pharmacy technician typically takes 1-2 years.
Medical assistants perform administrative and clinical tasks in healthcare settings. They take patient history information, record vital signs, and assist physicians during examinations. Medical assistants typically complete a certificate program to gain the training required for their role. Most programs take around one year.
Nurse Practitioner vs. RN
Nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses. Unlike RNs, nurse practitioners need a graduate degree to practice — usually a master of science in nursing (MSN) — and they can often practice without physician supervision. During an MSN program, nursing students take specialized courses and complete clinical requirements. Nurse practitioners often specialize in areas like family practice, pediatrics, acute care, or psychiatric-mental health.
Moving into an advanced practice role offers RNs more job responsibilities and a higher earning potential. Nurse practitioners earn a median salary of nearly $110,000 per year.
LPN vs. RN
The difference between an LPN and an RN is that licensed practical nurses (LPNs), also known as licensed vocational nurses (LVNs), must be supervised by an RN. They perform tasks such as checking blood pressure, changing bandages, and helping patients with daily tasks. LPNs must complete a one-year certificate and pass the NCLEX-PN exam to apply for licenses.
RNs can complete an associate degree, nursing diploma, or a BSN to earn their licenses. RNs have more responsibilities than LPNs and earn a higher salary. While LPNs earn a median pay of $47,500 per year, RNs earn a median annual salary of roughly $73,000.
Founded in 1896, ANA is the major professional association for nurses in the United States and represents four million RNs. ANA provides career development resources, including professional certifications and educational tools.
ASRN dates back to 1974, and its main mission is to connect RNs with other another and with networking opportunities. The society offers scholarships, grants, and fellowships to support nursing students. It also publishes journals and provides career resources.
Founded in 1899, ICN brings together over 130 national nursing associations, ensuring that they all adhere to the same standards. The council represents more than 20 million nurses around the globe, and it promotes quality nursing care and the advancement of nursing knowledge.
NCEMNA brings together five national ethnic nurse associations, including the National Black Nurses Association and the National Association of Hispanic Nurses. As collaborative association, NCEMNA represents ethnic minority nurses and supports nurses moving into leadership roles.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Kind of Jobs Can an RN Have?
RNs specialize in many areas, including pediatrics, acute care, emergency nursing, obstetrics, and oncology. With experience, RNs can come to hold leadership roles like, lead or head nurse.
What Are the Highest Paying RN Jobs?
The highest paying jobs for registered nurses include NICU nurse, informatics nurse, and critical care nurse. RNs can also increase their earning potential by earning an MSN degree and becoming a nurse practitioner (NP).
What Pays More — LPN or RN?
RNs earn significantly more than LPNs, on average. According to the BLS, LPNs earn a median pay of $47,500 per year, while RNs earn over $73,000 per year.
What Kind of Nurses Get Paid the Most?
Advanced practice RNs (APRNs), including nurse anesthetists and nurse practitioners (NPs), earn the highest nursing salaries. RNs in certain specialties, like critical care and pediatrics, can also earn higher-than-average nursing salaries.
What Types of Nursing Specialties Are There?
RNs work in every specialty within medicine, including areas like oncology, acute care, pediatrics, and urgent care nursing.
How Do You Become a Nurse?
Nurses need at least an associate degree or diploma to earn an RN license; however, many employers prefer to hire RNs with at least a bachelor's degree in nursing.
Header Image Credit: Andersen Ross Photography Inc | Getty Images
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